Bigs in Schools helps international students adjust

November 15, 2011

Marta Palacios, principal of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, calls it “culture shock.” The D.C. public school’s large population of international students — and their teachers — often need help coping with academic and social changes.

That’s why she brought the Big Brothers Big Sisters’ program to the school six years ago.

“Parents work day and night, kids misbehave, but we see a trend of positive change,” Palacios said. “We cannot even measure that social change that we see in kids.”

The program, Bigs in Schools, pairs volunteer mentors with students from five D.C. public schools. “It’s helpful to have a Big Brother or Big Sister lead the way,” said Palacios.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is one of four area nonprofit groups to receive grants from The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund that supports D.C.-area nonprofit organizations that have programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. The $25,000 grant underwrites program coordinators for Bigs in Schools, said Denise Williams, vice president of programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the National Capital Area.

The students, enrolled in grades 4 through 8, get more than homework help. Their mentors are valuable social coaches as well, Williams said.

“Middle school children are going through a lot of transitions. They’re coming out of elementary school, transitioning into middle school, and a lot of them have peer pressure issues,” she said.

The mentors often come from private businesses or District universities. Ankur Upadhyay, a graduate student at Howard University, mentors two 4th-graders at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Adams Morgan.

“I track their progress through their teachers, and based on their knowledge and understanding, I create tools for them to study,” Upadhyay said. Teachers, he said, can’t always give every student the individual attention they need.

Upadhyay said he has seen progress since he started working with the students in January.

“Their reading is more structured now. I’m really impressed they’ve been able to do that,” he said.

Upadhyay, one of three children, said he’s more than a mentor to the students.

“I’m so attached to them — there’s no difference between them and my own brothers,” he said.

This year, there are 45 new mentoring relationships: 45 mentors, 45 students and their parents served through the program, Williams said.

Five District schools are participating in the program this academic year: Bruce-Monroe, H.D. Cooke, Harriet Tubman Elementary, Takoma Education Campus and Browne Education Campus.

Williams said the program is smaller this year because of the challenge of getting funding from businesses in a poor economy.

Funding from the grant pays Big Brothers Big Sisters staff who recruit and screen volunteer mentors and provide casework services, she said.

Program coordinators also may refer families to organizations that can provide more specific services, like La Clinica del Pueblo, a community health clinic in Columbia Heights, or the Latino Student Fund, which supports Hispanic students.

For more information, donations, visit washingtonpostcharities.com.

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